Sample text for Check the technique : liner notes for the hip-hop junkie / Brian Coleman.


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THE BEASTIE BOYS- CHECK YOUR HEAD

While the learning curve for most groups sets them in full
motion after their first album, the Beastie Boys took a bit
longer. But this wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. In the
search for their true group identity, they made some pretty amazing music
along the way, like 1986’s Licensed to Ill (Def Jam/CBS) and 1989’s Paul’s
Boutique
(Capitol). Even so, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that they didn’t
truly find themselves until the third time around, six years after their debut.
Paul’s Boutique, produced by the Beasties and the Dust Brothers and released
on July 25, 1989, was universally revered by fans and almost unanimously
jocked by critics. But the group suffered greatly from a lack of label
support and low initial sales numbers. In fact, the album wouldn’t be certified
platinum until 1995. (For an in-depth look at this album, Dan LeRoy’s
book Paul’s Boutique [Continuum, 2006] is highly recommended.) Because
of their situation with Capitol, the fall of 1989 wasn’t as carefree as the
trio—who had recently relocated from their hometown of New York to the
very different world of Los Angeles—might have hoped.
Adam Yauch, aka MCA, explains: “Check Your Head really got under
way on the heels of the failure of Paul’s Boutique [laughs], shortly after the
president of Capitol Records told us that he wouldn’t be able to focus on
our album because he had a new Donny Osmond album coming out. He
told us that we should just move on, that we should just forget about Paul’s
Boutique
and start on the next record.” Aside from a very quick promo
jaunt, there was almost zero touring for Paul’s Boutique.
MCA continues: “After that disheartening reaction from Capitol, we just
started setting up instruments at Adam’s [the other Adam of the group,
Adam Horovitz, aka Adrock] place and started jamming. Mark [future group
keyboardist “Money” Mark Ramos Nishita] brought over a keyboard and we
had a mini setup there.” Devoted fans of the group know the three members
started out in the early and mid-eighties on the heels of two different punk
rock groups: one called the Beastie Boys, one called the Young and the Useless.
Each of the trio played an instrument—Yauch on bass, Adrock on guitar,
and Mike D (Diamond) on drums—but the three men hadn’t played their
instruments on a regular basis for years. The jam sessions at Adrock’s apartment
brought their love of playing together back in quick fashion.

Mike D remembers: “Once we started playing at Adrock’s, that was really
the initial stuff for Check Your Head. This was after Paul’s Boutique
was out, and we all had our own apartments in L.A. We had little drums
and little amps, and we just started playing together.”
Even though the final product wouldn’t hit stores for almost three years,
the course had been set for the Beasties. Sampling, the lifeblood of almost
all hip-hop groups at the time, would take a backseat to the three MCs actually
playing (and, truth be told, playing pretty well). Some producers, of
course, do rhyme, and some also DJ and play instruments. But few, if any,
have done all four with as much success. It was a precedent that has not
been equaled or bettered in hip-hop to this day.
Mike says: “I don’t know if I’d say that Paul’s Boutique took the sampling
thing as far as it could be taken, but we came close. So we definitely
didn’t want to jump right back into that same direction.” One reason for the
change could have also been an economic one. Check Your Head producer/
engineer Mario Caldato Jr. says that the sample clearances for Paul’s
Boutique
were between $200,000 and $250,000, on top of their expensive
studio bills. And Money Mark says: “The way I always heard it was that
their accountant told them that they couldn’t make any money with all
those samples, so they tried a different route.”
Soon enough, Adrock’s neighbors complained about the funky noises
coming from his living room, so the group moved to a rehearsal space—
Cole Rehearsal Studios in Hollywood. Yauch explains: “We played there
for a couple months. And while we were there we’d just set up a couple
mics and record onto DAT [digital audio tape].”
At Adrock’s and at Cole, another key component to the Check Your Head
equation, the Brazilian-born and L.A.–raised Caldato, was in attendance.
Caldato, a sometime bassist, already had an impressive engineering track
record when he met the Beasties in the late eighties. After building the
basic but effective Delicious Vinyl Studios in label founder and co-owner
Matt Dike’s living room (which consisted of an eight-track board, an [E-mu]
SP-1200 sampler, and a vocal booth modified from an old coat closet), he
went on to engineer all Delicious Vinyl releases in 1988 and 1989. These included
multiplatinum albums by Tone-Lo¯ c (Lo¯ c’ed After Dark, 1989) and
Young MC (Stone Cold Rhymin’, 1989).
Since Dike was part of the original incarnation of the Dust Brothers
(along with John King and Mike Simpson), who produced Paul’s Boutique,
Caldato knew the group and was brought in to engineer the second Beasties
album. Caldato produced one song on the album, a skit called “Ask for Janice.”
He remembers: “Working on Paul’s Boutique was definitely much bigger
for me than the Delicious Vinyl stuff, even though those records had
sold a lot. The Beasties were top billin’ and they had tons of money. I was
getting ten dollars an hour working for Matt Dike, and the Beasties paid me
twenty-five dollars an hour.”
Mike D explains: “It was a lot of fun making Paul’s Boutique, but we
spent I don’t know how many hours and days in all of these fancy-ass studios
like Ocean Way and the Record Plant. We were probably paying two
thousand dollars a day to work that way, so after that album we were like:
‘Okay, that was a lot of fun, but that was also pretty stupid.’ ”
Caldato says that after Paul’s Boutique, the Beasties and the Dust Brothers
were in a disagreement over money and royalty percentages, so as they
started conceptualizing their next record, it was unlikely that the two
camps would work together again. Mario opines: “It was a bummer that
things worked out that way, because everyone had so much fun making
Paul’s Boutique. But when Check Your Head started to take shape, the
Beasties just wanted more control.”
Caldato, who was still on the best of terms with the Beasties inside and
outside the studio, stepped in as co-producer. He says: “After Paul’s Boutique
was out, I was still hanging out with the Beasties just about every day.
They weren’t from L.A., so they liked hanging with someone who was from
here, because they still didn’t feel like they were locals.” And as for
Caldato’s new title of producer for the group, he says, “Engineering and
production really go hand in hand, in my opinion, so stepping up to that
level wasn’t a big thing. We all worked really well together.”
“By early 1990, things really started to take shape,” recalls Caldato. “We’d
be listening to a Meters record and they’d say: ‘Hey, we should try and do a
cover of that.’ And so they’d do their own version. From Adrock’s to Cole, I
was just following them around and recording. Before you know it, the basis
for [Check Your Head album tracks] ‘Something’s Got to Give’ and ‘Pow’ are
taking shape. By that time, I had gotten my old eight-track board from Delicious
Vinyl and would set it up wherever they were. We had the first money
for the album budget from Capitol, sixty thousand dollars, and we got a good
tape recording setup and a mixing board. That’s all we needed, because I had
everything else. I wasn’t messing with anything related to Delicious Vinyl at
that point. I was working full-time for the Beasties.”
“We definitely wanted to spend our next recording budget on our own
studio, so we could have more freedom,” says Yauch. “When you’re in a
commercial studio, you just have to think a different way, like: ‘Let’s knock
this song out and get out of here.’ This time around we wanted to be able to
experiment. So after a little while we started to look around for a space, and
that’s when we found G-Son.”
The soon-to-be-crowned G-Son Studios, located at 32181⁄2 Glendale Boulevard
in the “uncool” and “weird” Atwater section of L.A. (as described
by the Beasties and Caldato), was an old ballroom, and it was to be the
Beasties’ personal clubhouse for the foreseeable future. Caldato remembers:
“G-Son was at one time called the Atwater Community Center. It was
basically a ballroom with a wood floor and a domed ceiling. It had a crazy sound
that echoed out in the middle. It was being used as a rehearsal-studio type of
place and the guy who rented it to us, Tony Riparetti, had
his own equipment in there.
[Author’s note: Mark and Mario agree that the owner of the building’s name was Bill,
and that the Beasties likely subleased part of Riparetti’s space.
]

We rented the big room from him because he
wasn’t using it. I think our rent was $1,000 or $1,500 a month. That was less than one day spent at those Paul’s Boutique studios.” The “original” Country Mike, a country music songwriter from whom
Beastie Mike D took his country music nom de plume, rented space down
the hall.
Yauch recalls that G-Son got its name because the i and l were missing
from a sign on the building describing a business named Gilson. “G-Son
was a big, old, open ballroom on the second floor of a commercial space,
above a drugstore,” he recalls. “The guy who owned it had built a stage at
one end of the ballroom, with a small control room off to the side. When we
moved in there, we took these two closets that were at the other end of the
room, broke down the wall between them, and made it our control room.”
“Aside from the main control room and the ‘live’ room [the ballroom
area], we also had a little shitty room called Studio G [also known as Studio
B, which is more logical since there were only two studios], which had
an SP-1200, a cassette four-track, and some shitty speakers,” recalls Mike D.
“If someone was working with Mario in the main room, then someone else
could work on another track in Studio G.”
Caldato adds: “We used the stage to set up the instruments and carpeted
it down. And we even built a half-court basketball court in there on the
dance floor. That definitely got some good use when we needed a break.
More than anything, G-Son was just a big clubhouse.”
After stockpiling the equipment they needed under Mario’s guidance,
the group began woodshedding at G-Son with even greater purpose by the
spring of 1990. Interestingly, the usually wordy Beasties didn’t have lyrics
for any of the songs they were working on. Adrock remembers: “When we
first started making Check Your Head, it was an even bigger jump, musically,
than how it actually ended up. When we first started, I think we figured
that we’d just make an all-instrumental album.”
Yauch explains what sparked their new instrumental direction: “When we
first started playing our instruments again, we got very absorbed in that. I
think we were first inspired by all the stuff that we had sampled on Paul’s Boutique.
We played instruments on Paul’s Boutique, on ‘Looking Down the Barrel
of a Gun’ and ‘Hello Brooklyn.’We even played some stuff on Licensed to
Ill.
But it was a different approach when we started Check Your Head. Before
that, a lot of what we had played was more on the hardcore and rock side.”
“Doing an instrumental album for those guys at the beginning was really
just by default, because they didn’t have any lyrics,” says Caldato. “The allinstrumental
thing was just a goof. Luckily, at the time they were free to do
whatever they wanted and they were just having fun playing. Things
evolved slowly. And I think it was just a natural progression after what they
had done on Paul’s Boutique. They were like: ‘Let’s take a break from all
those samples and just sample ourselves.’ ”
One important part of the Check Your Head puzzle was their new musical
associate, Money Mark Nishita. Mark was a carpenter by trade and a
childhood friend (and bandmate, in a group called the Jungle Bugs) of
Caldato’s. After studying theater at Los Angeles Community College, Mark
ended up building backdrops for numerous sets in a nine-to-five gig for
Hollywood Center Studios.
The Gardena, California, born and bred Nishita had first met the Beasties
in the eighties at Matt Dike’s “Power Tools” DJ night and had even taken
part in some of the infamous egg-throwing expeditions with the Beasties
during their Paul’s Boutique days. He was brought in to fix a fence at the
group’s rented “party house,” the G-Spot, and the talk quickly turned to
music. “There was definitely an instant bond when I first jammed with
them,” says Mark. “I brought some equipment over there, we hit record on
the four-track, and the rest is history.”
Aside from the many ultrafunky keyboard lines he played, Nishita’s
screw-gun-and-nail skills would be equally important to Check Your Head,
as he built G-Son to the specifications that Caldato and the Beasties needed.
Mike D says: “Mark was an excellent carpenter, and his screw-gun expertise
was used quite often. He made the ‘drum shack’ that you can see on the
inside of the album.” Adrock adds: “I remember one day I was saying how
I’d love to have a round guitar amp that I could roll around. Two days later,
Mark showed up with a round amp that he had made. It sounded terrible,
but it looked very cool!”
Mark says: “As soon as they decided that they were going to build that
G-Son space, I was put on the clock and I quit my nine-to-five gig. They
needed a carpenter and a keyboardist, so there I was. I was playing guitar
back then too, but they didn’t need guitar. Once the spot was rented, there
was a lot of work to do. I remember we were loading plywood in there for
three days straight. As soon as there was some minimal structure in there,
we started recording. We were actually building and recording at the same
time, so it was a bit of a blurred transition between the two. It was like a
kindergarten class: On the first day of school, the walls are bare, but at the
end of the year there’s all this artwork up there. That’s what G-Son and
Check Your Head was like.”
“We never even got around to building proper vocal booths, actually,”
Mark adds. “It was more important for them to have skateboard ramps and
a basketball court [laughs]. The ballroom floor was perfect for that.”
The group went about recording the album like a job, albeit a casual and
most certainly third-shift one. Adrock remembers: “We were there most
weekdays for more than a year, but sometimes we wouldn’t get anything
done for a whole week, because we’d be messing around, playing basketball,
playing dominoes [laughs].” Yauch adds: “We never really went there
during the day because the downstairs neighbor was a drugstore or something,
and they’d get upset if we played while they were open. So we’d
drive over there at about six thirty at night and hang out until about two in
the morning.”
Money Mark mentions that he could load in equipment before six P.M.,
but couldn’t start building anything until after that. He would generally
build for an hour or two, then the Beasties would arrive and jamming could
begin. Mark, of course, pulled double duty, transitioning from screw gun to
keyboards. “I was the first one there every day, and the last to leave,” he
says.
On the subject of the album’s songwriting, Mike D says, “Sonically, on
Check Your Head we put songs together in every type of way. Sometimes it
was just us playing, sometimes we cut and pasted parts of us playing together,
and sometimes we’d sample ourselves playing a loop and then build
something on top of that. We could have done all that in a regular studio,
but it’s hard to imagine how because of all the time it took. Hundreds of
hours went into making that album.”
“Each song on Check Your Head had its own unique birth and ending,”
says Mark. “Songs were always mutating. That was the magic of it. You
never knew how it would end up.” He adds, regarding his self-proclaimed
“outsider” contribution to the musical mix, “I was the best musician out of
all of us, so it was my job to keep things together when we were all just
throwing ideas out there and jamming. I’d hear what they weren’t doing
and would try to fit sounds into those places. I guess you could say that I
was the stealth music director for everyone. And I learned how to write real
songs from them. I had never done anything like that before.”
“Sometimes we’d start to arrange and mix a song, only to put it down
and come back to it months later,” explains Caldato. “I have about eighteen
hours of songs that we went so far as to mix on DAT, stuff we were almost
done with. And I’m sure I have a hundred hours of DATs of them beyond
that, when they were just fucking around and playing. We recorded everything.
Some songs would have eight or ten different mixes because they
would evolve over time.”
According to Caldato, the Beasties had complete creative control when
it came to their contracts and, as a result, no A&R reps from Capitol ever
came by G-Son. “I think at that point, after a couple years, the label had just
written them off,” says Caldato. “There was never even a due date for the
album from the label.”
Aside from bringing the trio’s musicality to the front, Check Your Head
also showed that both Adams in the group could DJ quite effectively, as
they claim to have shared turntable duties wherever cuts were needed. (No
DJ is listed in the album’s liners.) “When it comes to DJing, we have different
styles,” explains Adrock. “I’m a cutter and a scratcher, and Yauch’s a
‘terminator’”—a term that the Beasties and Caldato use for what is commonly
known as “transforming,” most likely a tribute to their friend Terminator
X, Public Enemy’s DJ. Yauch adds that longtime group associate DJ
Hurricane “was only used for our live shows at the time.”
There was another DJ angle to Check Your Head, as Yauch explains.
“Back then we had kind of a battle with different pause-tapes [homemade
DJ mixes made without an actual DJ mixer, using the pause and record buttons
on a tape deck to simulate a cut-and-paste-style DJ mix] we were making
and playing for each other. The tapes we were making would jump
around with different styles, just quick parts of different songs. Hip-hop to
jazz to funk and whatever else. And in a way, Check Your Head ended up
being like one of those pause-tapes.”
Mario C agrees with the pause-tape description, and recalls, “Every
night when we’d hit G-Son, it would be like show-and-tell, because we’d
all be trying to come up with the best tape. Eventually, everybody would
show up with a whole record bag instead of a tape, and we’d all take turns
showing off records we had just found. That album is definitely one big
mix-tape, because it evolved from bits and pieces of everything, from them
playing live to all the new samples we were using.”
“The thing about a pause-tape is that you’re only taking the hypest part
of any song, like the best two minutes out of an eleven-minute jazz track,”
explains Mike D. “While we were making Check Your Head, we would constantly review
all the tapes of us playing, and then we’d make pause-tapes out of those with
the best parts. And even then, a lot of that
stuff still sucked [laughs].”
1990 and 1991 was an amazingly productive time for the group. Yauch explains the general blueprint
of their recording aesthetic:
“A lot of times we’d just go in and
improvise, and Mario would be running
the DAT machine [and recording]. In the
control booth at G-Son we had a twentyfour-
track tape machine [for more “serious”
final recordings] and a DAT player
[for better than average sound, usually recorded
without having each instrument individually
mic’ed]. We’d play for a few
hours and it would all be on the DAT, and
if there were certain parts that sounded
particularly promising, we could build off
those parts and actually record them on
twenty-four tracks. We tried to keep shit
sparse and funky, but frequently we’d just
start wailing, and we’d just keep going from there to see if anything good
came out of it.”
Although group members now say that Check Your Head could have been
all-instrumental, it still seems unlikely, considering that these were three
motormouthed MCs waiting to break loose again. Yauch says: “Towards the
end of the whole recording process, we got back into making some hip-hop
stuff. That was the last piece of the puzzle for us, once we started doing
tracks like ‘Pass the Mic’ and ‘So What’cha Want.’ ” Mike adds: “When it
came to adding more hip-hop to the mix, it wasn’t a specific decision, but I
do remember that we were playing around and Biz [Markie] came by the studio,
and he just rhymed for hours over what we were doing. I think that got
us inspired to start rhyming again. We just got back into that mode.”
To go along with their laissez-faire attitude toward rhyming on the
album, they also downgraded on the microphone side. Yauch explains: “At
first we would just plug our mics into a fuzzbox [guitar effect box], and
Mario hated that. But he eventually came around to what we were doing
and he even bought us these shitty plastic mics at Radio Shack or somewhere.”
Caldato, who was indeed initially opposed to using “bullshit” mics,
eventually embraced them. “We had a small side studio room that was like
a ‘B room,’ and it had a four-track cassette recorder and a cheap karaoke mic
that I had bought, which had effects on it,” he says. “The mic could go high
or low and do computer voices or whatever. If the main room was being
used by someone else, the other person would just do a very rough demo in
that side room with the crappy mic. But a lot of times we liked the sound of
the crappy mic better. To be honest, we never really used a good microphone
on that album.”
All the group’s jamming and messing around ended up paying big dividends.
“We barely did any touring behind Paul’s Boutique because of the
Donny Osmond fiasco, so all the performing that we did during the era after
Paul’s Boutique was really just in the studio,” explains Yauch. “For Check
Your Head,
we probably spent three years screwing around and playing instruments
and really just trying to get to a new level. We weren’t even used
to playing them as full songs until we started touring, in 1992.”
The obvious difference between Check Your Head and Paul’s Boutique,
on paper at least, was in the number of samples used. Caldato says: “Half of
the record is instrumental, and a lot of the songs, even the vocal and hiphop
ones, don’t have any samples. There are only eight hip-hop songs out
of twenty, and even those have a lot of live playing on them. So it was definitely
a very unique hip-hop album for the time.”
After finishing, in Caldato’s estimation, between thirty and forty full
songs by late 1991, it was agreed that the album was finally ready. It was
eventually pared down to twenty songs, which still made up quite a hearty
hip-hop and funk platter. Caldato says: “I really think that the Beasties
came into their own on Check Your Head. On Paul’s Boutique they went all
out, spending money and living large. But Check Your Head is just a real
honest record. It’s as no-bullshit as you can get.” Money Mark also mentions
an important fact to think about in that pre–Pro Tools world of record ing:
With hundreds of hours of DAT and two- and four-track tapes of the
group jamming to use for final mixes, all edits were done by cutting and
splicing the tapes manually, not with computer-based digital editing. This
was complicated and arduous, to say the least.
Mark says: “Check Your Head was important for so many reasons. It was
the first record that they made on their own, and that was significant. They
didn’t have Rick [Rubin, who masterfully produced the group’s 1986 debut,
Licensed to Ill] to boss them around, or the Dust Brothers to dictate everything.
Mario and I were both strongly dedicated to the fact that everything
on that album had to come through the Beastie Boys. They were already
written off by Capitol, and I think that was a blessing in disguise. If they
had had a firm deadline for the album, it wouldn’t have been the same. It’s
not like they were shy before Check Your Head, but at the same time I think
the Beasties gained a lot of confidence after that album was finished. They
knew they could do anything at that point.”
Check Your Head was wrapped up by early 1992 and released on April
21 of that year. Mario says: “I’ve definitely never been involved in a record
like that before or since. I mean, three years to make a record, just a bunch
of guys hanging out? We’d hang out when we wanted to and make music
when we wanted to. It was all about inspiration. There was no pressure, no
label politics, nothing bad at all. And after the record hit, we toured behind
it and I went and I did the live mix for them. That was really amazing, to
bring the music to people and see their reaction. It was the best reward that
any of us could have wanted.”
The music was so good, in fact, that it brought Mark back from his old
hammer-and-nails life a second time. He explains: “All the stuff I did on the
record was done before those guys wrapped everything up, so by early 1992
I had gone back to work as a carpenter. They were ready to tour after the
album came out, but I had landed a huge kitchen-remodeling job, and so I
told them I couldn’t go. But after them prodding me and me thinking about
it some more, I decided to go on tour and I gave the job to one of my competitors
to finish. The songs on that album were so good that I just couldn’t
say no.
“And,” he says, “To this day I still haven’t been back to get my tools.”


Library of Congress subject headings for this publication:
Rap (Music) -- History and criticism.
Rap musicians -- United States.